A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the story on the Sargasso Sea?

August 1, 2002

Dear Straight Dope:

What's the true story with the Sargasso Sea? Is there actually a huge mass of floating seaweed in the middle of the Atlantic? Do ships have a difficult time traversing it? Are there abandoned ships stuck in it, and if so, how many and are there any famous anecdotes? I have heard that Columbus once encountered it; is this true?

The Sargasso Sea is often associated with the infamous "Bermuda Triangle" (of which The Master has already spoken). There's a bit more to the Sargasso Sea than there is to the Bermuda Triangle, though--not that that's saying much.

The Sargasso Sea is a 2,000,000-square-mile ellipse-shaped region of the North Atlantic Ocean extending south and east of Bermuda. It's called the Sargasso sea because comparatively large amounts of seaweed of the genus Sargassum can be seen floating on the surface. Although the ubiquitous seaweed might lead one to suppose the Sea to be an unusually fertile stretch of ocean--a marine jungle, as it were--its warm, still waters have actually long been considered something of a desert in biological terms, with relatively little life (except for the seaweed, of course). Like many deserts, though, it does harbor its own unique ecosystem, with organisms that are specially adapted to live among the Sargassum mats, and biologists have more recently begun to appreciate the region's potential as a haven of biodiversity. (Still no mermaids, though.)

The Sea's special properties are a result of it lying in the center of a huge oval of relatively still waters bounded by ocean currents, including the Gulf Stream, which circle it clockwise, sort of like the eye of a very huge, very, very slow, permanent hurricane.

Not only did Columbus encounter the Sargasso Sea, he is credited with its discovery, being the first person to leave an account of it. Columbus, ever the optimist, took the seaweed as a sign that he was close to shore. (In fact, the Sea lies many hundreds of miles from land, except for the tiny Bermuda Islands in its northwestern quadrant.) His sailors, on the other hand, reputedly first vented the oft-expressed fear of becoming entangled in the seaweed.

The Sargasso Sea went on to figure prominently in nautical lore as a place where ships would become entangled by the seaweed, and if you look for information on the Sargasso, be prepared to find a lot of silliness about the "mysterious" Bermuda Triangle. It's all a lot of hooey, though. Although there's more of it in the Sargasso Sea than in some randomly chosen patch of ocean elsewhere, the seaweed there has never been remotely thick enough to hamper a ship from sailing through. A ship could no more be "stuck" in the Sargasso Sea than it could be "stuck" in any other part of the ocean. A fact which undoubtedly added to the popularity of the "ships tangled in seaweed" legend is that the same patterns of currents which form the Sargasso Sea also lead to it being part of the area known as the "doldrums" or the "horse latitudes." Because the winds and currents are relatively calm there, sailing ships frequently found themselves becalmed--trapped not by the humble seaweed but by a lack of wind. Modern ships, of course, are no longer at the mercy of the winds that way, and jetliners are even less so.

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